As I take another read through William Langland’s Piers Plowman, one particular passage caught my attention in a new way: the author’s portrait of impoverished women as the ‘deserving poor’ in Passus IX of the C-text. I have translated lines 70 to 87 below, doing my best to preserve both the sense and the style of Langland’s original:
Nobody knows, I believe, who is neediest of all
Except for the dearth of those who dwell near, who deserve our attention,
As penalized prisoners and the impoverished in slums,
Burdened with babies and bills of debt;
What they save from spinning, they spend on rent,
On milk and on meals, to make what they can
To feed their families who are faint from hunger.
And they likewise suffer from lack,
And woe in wintertime and waking up in the nights
To rise in their rooms and rock the cradle,
Both to card and to comb, to clean and to mend,
To scrape and to scrub, to scratch out a living,
It is heartbreaking to hear and hard to discuss
The woe of these women who wait in the slums,
And of their perennial peers with palpable sorrow,
Both starving and unsatisfied, to stay afloat.
Embarrassed to beg and busy concealing
At noon and at night what they need to get by.
[Woet no man, as Y wene, who is worthy to haue
Ac that most neden are oure neyhebores, and we nyme gode hede,
Ac prisones in puttes and pore folk in cotes,
Charged with childrene and chief lordes rent;
That they with spynnyng may spare, spenen hit on hous-huyre,
Both in mylke and in mele, to make with papelotes
To aglotye with here gurles that greden aftur fode.
And hemsulue also soffre muche hunger
And wo in wynter-tymes and wakynge on nyhtes
To rise to the reule to rokke the cradel,
Both to carde and to kembe, to cloute and to wasche,
To rybbe and to rele, rusches to pylie,
That reuthe is to rede or in ryme shewe
The wo of this wommen that wonyeth in cotes
And of monye other men that moche wo soffren,
Bothe afyngred and afurste, to turne the fayre outard
And ben abasched for to begge and wollen nat be aknowe
What hem nedeth at here neyhebores at noon and at eue.]
Even in translation, it is easy to detect the incredible pathos of Langland’s description of this group of women that is rarely discussed in such early verse. Doubly marginalized by their gender and their class, women coping with abject poverty are seldom considered worthy subjects of discussion for Middle English poetry. As Geoffrey A. Shepherd has noted, there is no earlier example of poetry that “conveys the felt and inner bitterness of poverty” (172).
Derek Pearsall’s explanation of the above passage in his annotated edition of the C-Text adds another layer to the destitution of these women, saying that the lines “describe the poverty of women, whether widows or otherwise left single to bring up a family by themselves” (l. 73-83 n.). Though the desperation of these women suggests that they may not have partners to share in the task of raising children, this is not necessarily the case. There is no need to assume that women who are engaged in a daily struggle for survival, in Langland’s time as now, would be in a significantly better position if they had husbands. The notion of a division between bread-winning and domestic roles within the family is more salient in a post-industrial world, especially within an economic group that cannot afford to observe normative ideas of social behaviour.
Whether or not this passage indeed describes the plight of single mothers or that of impoverished mothers in general, it is remarkable in that it passes a ‘Bechdel test’ of sorts, which is rare in Piers Plowman. The Bechdel test is a yardstick from feminist film criticism named for the author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which measures whether a film has at least two named female characters, and they have a conversation about something other than a man. The above passage from Passus IX does not pass the test as it is thus articulated – the women described have neither names nor voices. It does, however, distinguish itself in a similar sense. Though it involves the male narrator speaking about unnamed women, it involves a sustained passage that has nothing to do with men. This is the reason, I think, that Pearsall and others have identified these women as single mothers – it is so unusual to have such a passage in Langland’s work that many have read the absence of these women’s husbands in the text as a negative presence. If we turn away from the spectral presence of men in this passage and instead attend to Langland’s portrayal of women, we can see a new respect and heroism for women who may be wives, and thus otherwise given little consideration in fourteenth-century society.
It is often rather difficult to conduct a sustained reading of women in Piers Plowman, as most instances of gender contrast surround allegorical figures like Lady Meed and Holy Church. Though there is undoubtedly food for thought in those passages, they are less likely to give us insight into the lived experiences of women in the fourteenth century. This does not mean, however, that Piers Plowman does not lend itself to a textured exploration of women and gender in literary representation and reality. By looking at Langland’s affective response to the abject social conditions around him, we can begin to uncover greater complexity in his portrayal of women.
Langland, William. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008.
Shepherd, Geoffrey. “Poverty in Piers Plowman.” Social Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton. Ed. T.h. Aston, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 169-190.